Here’s a tricky question for your next pub quiz. What do the following people have in common?
Here’s a tricky question for your next pub quiz. What do the following people have in common? The protagonist of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, Scott Bakula’s character in Star Trek: Enterprise and Steve Wozniak, one of the co-founders of Apple Computers?
Answer: they have all suffered, at one time or another, from anterograde amnesia, an unusual form of memory loss which can follow a traumatic brain injury. To their number may now be added the central character of Yoko Ogawa’s new novel, a professor of advanced mathematics whose memory ‘stopped’ in 1975 when he was involved in a car accident. Since then, the professor — whose name we never learn — can recall at any moment only the last 80 minutes of his life. ‘He can remember a theorem he developed 30 years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last night.’
Elmore Leonard once observed that if your idea for a story is a character with amnesia, then you don’t have a story. Ogawa would doubtless disagree. She plainly sees the professor’s condition as a metaphor for all human relationships. How well can we ever know a person? What do our memories mean? Into the professor’s ramshackle Tokyo apartment she introduces the housekeeper of the title, a 28-year-old single mother with a young son whom the professor nicknames Root, ‘because the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign’. A touching relationship develops between the three characters, despite the fact that the professor is effectively meeting them for the first time every day.
Mathematics is the key. The house- keeper hated maths at school so much ‘that the mere sight of the textbook made [her] feel ill’. Nevertheless, the professor proves an enthusiastic and skilful teacher, mesmerising his new employee with the beauty of apparently mundane numbers. ‘Eternal truths are ultimately invisible,’ he tells her, ‘and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression.’
The housekeeper is soon a fully-fledged mathematics junkie:
I thought of the professor whenever I saw a prime number — which, as it turned out, was almost everywhere I looked. Price tags at the supermarket, house numbers above doors, on bus schedules or the expiration date on a package of ham . . . On the face of it, these numbers faithfully played their official roles, but in secret they were primes and I knew that was what gave them their true meaning.
As somebody who also felt ill at the sight of a maths text book at school, I didn’t quite share the housekeeper’s enthusiasm for her new subject. There are also severe narrative drawbacks in placing a character with anterograde amnesia at the centre of a story. But Ogawa largely overcomes these through the clarity of her prose and the originality of her approach. Still, it’s extraordinary that this light, though undoubtedly touching Pygmalion story has sold two and a half million copies in its native Japan.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 6, 2009